Stop the Cacophony! Re-Civilizing the World One Conversation at a Time

How to respond when a colleague raises their voice.

Colleagues arguing

Recently, I had a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) in mind, but given the current state of the world, I have elected to instead choose an impossible goal that might actually become possible if enough of you decide to join in.

First, a little backstory: I recently had a medical scare during which I thought it was possible that I might die. It turned out OK, but (not to be too much of a cliché) when such a moment occurs, you have the chance to evaluate your life and what you've been and done, and especially what you've failed to be and do.

What first came to mind were some requests and directives to my family to look out for and care about each other and to be more patient. After that, I thought about the state of the world and my place in it, especially as it relates to my role as something of a thought leader in the area of listening and empathy.

And with that, I thought about how poorly most people listen to each other (particularly when it comes to work).

In fact, it isn't just poor listening. It seems to me that the world has devolved into a cacophony of people disrespecting, yelling at and rarely, if ever, hearing each other out before interrupting. In a word, communication has turned into cacophony.

To me, incivility manifests in a number of ways. Someone could talk over you or at you. They could be dismissive, disdainful, contemptuous, disparaging or sullen. They could stonewall you or be just plain disrespectful.

As I considered all those modes of communication, it occurred to me that they shared a common goal: to manipulate another person into either doing something they didn't want to do or (for the yeller) to refrain from doing something they didn't want to do.

When a colleague takes this approach with you, they're counting on it to trigger fear and loathing. They want you to use all your energy to put a lid on that angry reaction. When you do, they'll use that opportunity to escalate the situation further.

I also realized that just because another person is going all-out to manipulate you, that doesn't mean that you have to allow yourself to be manipulated.

The way I see it, there are three main responses you can have to this kind of manipulation. Any of these should help you beat the manipulator at their own game.

1. Talking Over You

Response: Pick up and leave. If they call out to you and yell, "What are you doing?" simply reply, "When someone like you is talking over me, which is your right, I simply get up and leave or just hang up, which is my right."

2. Talking At You

Response: Say to them, "If what you just said is important, please run it by me again in a normal and calm tone of voice. When someone talks at me, I instinctively tune out what they're saying."

3. Talking Down, Dismissively or Disdainfully to You

Response: The same as if they were talking over you. Pick up and leave. If they call out to you, simply reply, "Whenever someone like you is talking down or disdainfully to me, which is your right, I simply get up and leave or just hang up, which is my right."

If, by chance, they become flummoxed and tongue-tied, respond with, "What actually works very well with me and gets my full, undivided and cooperative attention is if you talk to or with me. With practice anyone, including you, can learn it. Until then, I have other things to do."

If you're the one talking over, at or dismissively to your colleagues and find the above responses from them to be disrespectful, reach out to someone who wants the best for you, and see what they think.

And finally, if they agree with you that those responses are disrespectful, tell them, "I want you to be completely honest with me because if you're just telling me what I want to hear, I need to know that."

As it turns out, imparting civility to people who are uncivil might not be teachable or coachable, but it may be trainable.

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